Today on the Scroll: Notes from half of a full-day CMW conference trying to explain how to sell music, cellphones and environmental awareness to suckers under 25
BY Marc Weisblott March 05, 2008 17:03
“The Rebirth of Music” is the tagline for the annual Canadian Music Week conference, taking place at the Royal York Hotel concurrently with festival shows in clubs around the city. Well, it certainly beats “Now More Than Ever” or “Right Here. Right Now” or the slogan that the recording industry introduced in the mid-1990s, “Music — For All It’s Worth," with the avatar of a big shiny disc with a manufacturers suggested list price of no less than $18.98. And, we all know what happened there, circumstances that required a re-think of the goat rodeo.
Flash back 15 years, when this very conference kicked off with a keynote from Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. What he said was, soon enough, there’d be no more record or video stores, all entertainment would be customizable, and delivery systems would no longer keep consumers tethered to corporations.
Problem was, anyone who took Negroponte at his word would’ve also been forced to take a vow of poverty for at least a decade. Moreover, those AM/FM radio and record company rep doods in their satin jackets and thinning grey ponytails, who spend the conference at the hotel bar, wouldn’t even want to risk buying a drink for someone already acting irrational.
Those prophecies came to fruition with an extra day of seminars tacked on to the main conference. The Millennials is one of several conferences organized by DigitalMediaWire — with tickets for the day-long event costing $350 per expense account, this kind of event validates the existence of any online trade publication.
The Millennials promised an opportunity to connect with Tweens, Teens and Gen Y — a challenge for those who coasted into the early 21st century on the music-driven business model which, in hindsight, really didn’t change much from when RPM magazine started publishing in 1964.
But did those successful teen tycoons of yesteryear develop their chops by going to a conference? Phil Spector, Kim Fowley, Rodney Bigenheimer et al. were driven by, what? Stuff like drugs, guns, egos, mental illness — and always that added dollop of unseemliness that comes with grown men trying to extort affection from kids. For that matter, Gary Gygax — the creator of Dungeons & Dragons who died yesterday at age 69 — wasn’t likely motivated by something that was droned on a panel in a hotel ballroom.
Keeping with the driving technological forces of the conference provides a different dimension, though. The audience of around 250 marketing types are invited to text-message their thoughts for anonymous display on the large screen — a potential outlet for passive-aggressive candor.
The first speaker, Dr. Mike Atkinson, a professor of psychology from the University of Western Ontario, deigns to explain who the Millennials are. Atkinson resembles a cargo pants-wearing version of comedian Gallagher (watermelon not included) and his infectious delivery is doubtless worth the price of tuition.
There were once a bunch of Baby Boomers, see. They had The Beatles, man walking on the moon, and Martin Luther King. They made way for Generation X, born between 1961 and 1971, who had to deal with Richard Nixon, the first space-shuttle explosion and disco. Then, strangely enough, there’s an 11-year gap in Atkinson’s theory — until the Millennials start arising in 1982. Tsunami! Dawson College! 9/11 shooting! But they also rode in the back seat with BABY ON BOARD signs, because that’s the kind of insanely doting parents they had.
Bring on the keywords: Special. Sheltered. Confident. Team-Oriented. Achieving. Pressured. Conventional. Technologically literate, too!
These creatures eat dinner at 10pm, learning to cook from the back of a microwavable box. They want to work at Disney first, Google second, but generally covet a government job. Millennials love the drugs, too — not pot, cocaine and LSD, but Prozac and Ritalin. Perfectly persuasive until Atkinson closes his sermon by suggesting old folks who want to learn more read Wired and … Shift, which ceased publication four years ago.
Next! Daniel Coates, the co-founder of SurveyU, a site where Millennials go to express their opinions “on everything from brands to bands to bureaucrats” in exchange for points that, in turn, can be exchanged for gift certificates. Sort of like the Skee-Ball machine at Chuck E. Cheese, but with a purpose — namely, so that Coates can present those surveys as the stuff of fact.
That most Boomers had their children late and Gen Xers had their children early — thus creating one big blur at PTA meetings — isn’t necessarily corroborated by Toronto life, though. But the SurveyU stats skew unapologetically American, including a segment that never went to college — like residents in a flyover country where it’s not uncommon to find a 37-year-old grandma.
Millennials use the internet 40 hours a week, compared to all of four dedicated to print — an hour less if they didn’t get beyond high school. How much of a lost cause are dead trees? Coates tells of how his Gen Y associates recently cringed at a client that wanted to create a campus periodical. And these are the same young professionals entering the workforce under the illusion that upward mobility is so yesterday. “For them, there is no ladder,” evokes Coates. “Their feeling is that ‘We can be whatever we want to be.’”
Cue two guys born in 1983: Dan Speerin and Wes McClintock, of the comedy do Cynically Tested, call their series of online webisodes Twixters — because that’s what lumbering beacon TIME magazine dubbed their age group. These guys hit all the right notes in a style that’s equal parts slick and sloppy — along with a made-for-YouTube parody of a 60 Minutes report on Millennials — leading one to wonder if they’re a couple douchebags who fly around the continent to add a dose of authenticity to conferences. Turns out, this is the first time they’ve done such a talk — and they did it for free, which means they deserve to get paid, stat.
“Just because you have a MySpace account doesn’t mean you have the keys to the Millennial kingdom,” deadpans Speerin. “It’s like those ‘Take a Penny, Leave a Penny’ trays — if there aren’t people who leave a penny, it doesn’t work. But no, I don’t want to be your ‘friend,’ you unnamed company.”
Most in the audience have been there and done that, only the derision was directed at Doc Marten for advertising their boots ideal for the mosh pit. Heck, a few of those in attendance can probably remember the debut of the hula hoop.
The morning keynote comes from Nina Guralnick, president of Live Earth, interviewed from the stage by Billboard charts editor Geoff Mayfield. And here’s where the condescending attitude of rock 'n’ roll altruism is met by snark on the live text message feed: “What was the carbon footprint of all the electricity and gasoline consumed by the Live Earth show and its online presence?” For that matter, “Live Earth had very low ratings with no measurable impact so why was it considered successful?” Guralnick defends the influence of the concert as a multi-platform mutli-media multi-generation blah blah blah.
“I have 13 nieces and nephews,” comes a voice from the floor. “The technology they use is so disposable, they want new products every year, etc.” How does Live Earth’s producer reconcile that? Best she can do is shrug.
GIMMIE THAT OLD-TIME ALT ROCK WHILE SELLING A NEW CELLPHONE
Panel number one: Connecting With A New Generation of Music Consumers, with ubiquitous moderator Alan Cross from 102.1 The Edge. Cross forgot to load all his music on his iPod Touch for his daily runs during a recent Caribbean trip. So, for 99 cents, he was able to download the motivational anthem he wanted on the spot — a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” by the Dropkick Murphys. What does anyone need this industry for?
For that matter, where were all the protest songs in response to this century’s global chaos? Who’s writing the modern-day version of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” David Kines, senior vice-president of music and youth services for the Queen West television factory now known as CTV Inc. questions whether “Ohio” was ever spun by Casey Kasem on American Top 40 (correct answer: yes, in the first weeks of the radio countdown show’s existence) because musical dissent has traditionally been less commercially viable.
Kines explains that plenty of MuchMusic employees have gone on to work for NGOs, so it’s wrong to assume they’re not engaged with the world because it’s not reflected in the escapist playlists of the remaining mass-appeal youthcasters. It’s either that, or entry-level media jobs ain’t worth sticking around for anymore.
Names dropped in the course of discussing the new paradigm: Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, and whatever moldy oldies that tweens are rocking to courtesy of videogames Rock Band and Guitar Hero. (Gaming was the main focus of the afternoon half of the conference, along with a panel called Paper or Plastic? How Do Millennials Prefer to Get Their News and Information? — as if a multiple choice was genuinely involved.)
A concurrent text: “How can we be at a Millennials Conference and not discuss ringtones, pop and hip-hop. Too much emphasis on an older white audience.”
The morning closed with Cut The Wire! Opportunities to Reach Millennials using Cell Phones, Satellite and WiFi, although the emphasis was on the former, and representation of the most-cited product was nowhere to be found — the iPhone.
What would these guys in the mobile-media business have been doing a half-generation or so ago? Selling waterbeds? Working as major-label A&R men? Ted Cohen, the panel moderator who runs a company called TAG Stragetic, previously worked in digital development and distribution at EMI Music. The most frequently asked question back then, he explains, was whether these new ventures were putting the compact disc at risk. “I think that’s off the table now,” he somewhat smugly concludes. Wither the Millennials?
Those who cultivate content for mobile devices repeatedly dwell on having to build relationships between artist and fan. (See also: "The live music talk," a well-circulated recent post by marketing guru Seth Godin.) “If you spam a cellphone,” says Telus vice-president of enhanced service David Neale, “it’s like running into someone’s bedroom and screaming at them.”
Don’t obsess over monetization, the creators — or, more likely, the band managers — frequently have to be told. Who’s going to get paid first, then?
The makers of technology that’s guaranteed to become obsolete each year, obviously. Now, the consensus is that the standalone MP3 player is totally toast. The service providers and their usurious user fees need their piece too, natch. Look, it’s an easier way for aging Gen X execs to retain a place in the music infrastructure than having to feign excitement over music they don’t actually like.
But that doesn’t solve the problem of competing with the Apple Computer Inc. juggernaut.
“Hire marketers,” a text message projected on the big screen glibly pleads.
“Marketing requires ideas,” comes the texted response from somewhere else in the room. “And this industry is short on ideas.”
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